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Divided Americans and Couples Therapy: Reducing Conflict within Relationships, Pt. 1

Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC

When it comes to politics, friends, relatives and strangers are consistently shouting at each other as opposed to engaging in discussions. Emotionally charged exchanges seem to be more of the norm these days “in venues ranging from local governments to national ruling bodies across the world.” Sometimes you may be reminded of a struggling marriage when you witness these shout-fests. Couples therapists would agree and utilize many interventions that have scientifically proven to be beneficial. When political disagreements arise, perhaps it might make a lot of sense to use some of the same concepts. These ideas are offered with modesty, in whatever arena of your life that they might apply. Not super political, no problem, this still applies as most people form relationships within their lives to develop meaning. Since we can’t control how others behave or what they believe, here are some tips to make sure your conversations are more productive. 

Try to Understand Their Perspective 

People think differently based upon their own personal worldview and perspective. Conversations that are difficult to have would be more constructive if we spent less time troubling, expecting to disagree, and avoiding the topic in general and more time thinking about things from the other person’s perspective. Try to reconstruct their side of the argument in the best way that you can, and take a walk in their shoes. 

Ok, sounds nice, but how does this even work? The person you are speaking with is more likely to feel heard when you are able to accurately demonstrate what they are saying. When someone feels heard, they are less frustrated, repeat themselves less, and decrease their volume. Also, practicing mindfulness and moment to moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings and surroundings can help us to be more present. When we are more present, we will be more aware of the “mental shortcuts” we take when we judge others and it will help us react less intensely, which happens when we feel upset or that there is a threat. 

Confide, Don’t Attack or Avoid 

According to Dan Wile, a nationally known couples therapist, typical behavior and stances people take when in disagreement are: avoid, attack or confide. The most common one is avoidance – sweeping under the rug and not raising the issue at all. Although this keeps the boat from being rocked, it does absolutely nothing to resolve a disagreement, reduce tension or solve the problem. When a person takes the approach of attack, the response that they are most likely going to get is either avoidance or withdrawal. Similar to avoidance, this does nothing. 

Make It Safe for People to Confide in You 

When we feel passionately about something, it can be challenging to come up with a collaborative and productive strategy. Positive communication skills can be used in order to make both parties feel heard. The following might help: 

  • Make short statements: things get out of hand when a high quantity of ideas are presented at the same time
  • Slow the conversation down: when upset, humans talk faster and rush through things
  • Take the extra time to ensure that you understand what the other person is trying to say: No assumptions. Instead of contradicting, carefully asking clarity questions can go a long way
  • Use “I statements” to describe what you feel and believe: You statements are attacking and it “characterizes the other person’s intentions.”

Being that these steps are highly effective in couples therapy, at the very least, it may work for you when discussing a political view, or a strong opinion on social media or at the dinner table. Nationally, it could even help politicians and activists with opposing views come to an understanding and have more productive conversations with one another. Check out my next blog to learn about the rest of the steps! 

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